So, How Many Hats Do You Wear?

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Pensacola, Florida, United States
Husband. *Dog Dad.* Instructional Systems Specialist. Runner. (Swim-challenged) Triathlete (on hiatus). USATF LDR Surveyor. USAT (Elite Rules) CRO/2, NTO/1. RRCA Rep., FL (North). Observer Of The Human Condition.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Core Workouts? Is That Little "Something-Something" Worth It?

Let’s say you’re a middle-of-the-pack 5K runner.  You probably spend five or six hours a week doing a weekend long run, one or two speed workouts, and the social group/recovery runs.  Maybe you do an hour, perhaps two, of cross-training, which could be swimming, spinning or pumping iron at the local gym.  But you feel compelled to add a little "something-something" to your training regimen which will improve your 5K time, if you only knew what would be the most efficient use of your time. 
Maybe someone suggested you work on your core – the muscles at the abdomen, hips, and back which transform that slinky of our human spine into something a little more resilient.  Is focusing on your core really help you run better?  How do you know if your core is strong?  And what kind of exercises will give me a strong core?
Sato and Mokha (Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, Vol.23, Ed.1, 2009) placed a group of runners on a six-week core strength training program to see whether their run performance, ground reaction force (how their limbs contacted the running surface), and lower extremity stability would improve.  Both the control and the treatment groups improved their 5K time at the end of the six-week study (which the researchers attributed to several variables), but the group which was placed on the core strength training program had a greater run time improvement, and no perceived change in stride mechanics (from ground reaction force variables) or lower leg stability. 
What differed from previous studies on the benefits of core strength training was the higher training volume (four times rather than two a week in other studies), as well as a two-week progression in set volume; the subjects continually had to adapt to an increased stimulus.  The exercises used in the study included:

Abdominal crunch on a stability ball.  Sit on the ball with your feet flat on the floor at about shoulder-width apart. Place your arms crossed on your chest, or hands behind your head. Walk your feet out a few steps until your lower back is on the ball, then curl your torso up until your shoulders are up off the ball. Hold the position for a moment, then lower and repeat.

Back extension on a stability ball.  Lie prone, with your upper torso draped over the ball, and your fingers and toes on the floor. Extend your spine and lift your head and your chest. Return to the starting position.

Supine opposite arm/leg raise.  Begin on your hands and knees.  Your hands are directly under your shoulders and your knees are directly under your hips at right angles to the floor.  Make your legs and feet parallel and hip distance apart.  Take a moment to slide your scapula (wing bones) down your back so that your shoulders are away from your ears, your chest is open, and your scapula are settled on your back, not poking up.  Extend your right arm straight in front of you and your left leg straight behind you at the same time. Your arm and leg will be parallel to the floor. This is the pose that reminds some people of a bird dog.

Hip raise on a stability ball.  Start by lying down, arms out, palms facing down. Rest the lower legs on the ball.  Lift the hips upward until the body is straight.  Slowly return to the starting position.

Russian twist on a stability ball.  Lay on ball, with shoulder blades on ball and hips pushed up high off ground.  Place hands together, or hold a single dumbbell.  Keeping your hips up, turn your shoulders to the right so they are perpendicular to the ground.  Twist back to the starting position, then twist to the other side.

I have bad news and good news about core workouts.
First, the bad news:  While core strength training may be an effective training method for improving performance in runners, you might end up with not much more than a strong set of core muscles.  When I reviewed the Outside magazine “Ten Biggest Fitness Myths” article, the question was raised whether whether core-specific training benefits athletic performance at all. In one study, a group of collegiate rowers who ­added an eight-week regimen of core exercises to their regular rowing ­workouts wound up with stronger cores, but their rowing performances remained the same. A group of Division I varsity football players were also tested, and researchers found almost no correlation between a strong core and athletic performance.
The good news is not only that the the law of specificity still works - running not only can help make you a better runner- but new studies show that running does work your midsection. 

Six-pack abs, and a better 5K time.  Gee, what a great idea!

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Frog Soup

The change in the air temperature during the past couple of Sunday morning "sorta-(long) runs" have made things more enjoyable.  I'm still not where I want to be but I'm better off than I was.  But it got me to thinking about the story about how to boil a frog.  You take a pot, and water, and the frog.  But the water has to be just right, not too hot and not too cold, or else the frog will find a way to get out.  Get the water nice and warm; make the frog comfortable, then slowly turn up the heat on the water.  By the time the frog realizes what has happened...soup.
I've been making "frog soup" out of my Sunday morning group: The run starts out with the group chatting about stuff and me not saying too much for the first couple of miles.  By the time we get to the (four-mile) mid-point, the pace has slowly ratcheted up to the point where the rest of the group, when they can finally speak, beg to have the pace slow down.  My friend Ron Young used to do this to me on Sundays...and Wednesdays... The difference is that Ron would do it so smoothly, over the course of three-or-four miles, that by the time you realized you were in over your head it was too late.

I've met people who can push their fellow racers into the hurt locker during a race, but very few know how to walk their fellow racers "down the hallway" and "open the door" for them.  To develop this skill I believe it takes a blend of two different kinds of workouts in the training schedule: the progressive tempo run and the "good build-up" track repeat.

The "good build-up" track repeat is one of several key repeats I enjoyed using with my training group.  Any "build-up" repeat we did was broken into thirds; the first one-third of the repeat would be run at about 5K race pace, the second one-third of the repeat was for a smooth acceleration to about 75-80 percent of perceived maximal effort, and the final third would consist of holding that 75-80 percent effort.  If the effort dropped off at the last few meters the athlete knew they had accelerated too much in the middle third.  The repeat could be as long as 400 meters, but I preferred to use 300 meters starting at the front of the track straightaway for several reasons; the athlete knew exactly where the acceleration zone began and ended, and there was no curve to confound maintaining a consistent effort in the final third.  Best of all, I could limit the recovery to the 62-meter distance across the track infield.  Sure, you could explode at the 100-meter mark, but the ideal was to roll-up the intensity so that your effort as you exited the curve was right at 75-to-80 percent.

The progressive tempo run is an extension of that good build-up over the course of a 20-minute tempo.  Start the first ten minutes at a comfortable pace, just a little slower than 65 percent effort.  Once the ten-minute point is reached it's time to slowly pick up the pace, just a little bit every minute or every block or every telephone/electric/light pole, until you're at that tempo run pace or a little faster in the last couple of minutes.

It's great to have the ability to pull the trigger and unleash a kick at the last 187 meters of a 5,000 meter road race, but a good racer can turn their fellow competitors into "frog soup."

Saturday, September 22, 2012

Are You Injured?

 Perhaps you should listen to your spouse.  Thanks to my friend Scott (Knaves) Nance.  And my wife.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Strength Training? Heavy Weights Won't Do "Squat"

To look at my leg muscles it would be hard for most anyone to say I need to work on leg strength. I have a set of quadriceps, a by-product of years of windy bicycle rides in the New Mexico desert, which make sprint cyclists a little nervous. However, I wasn't blessed with a well-balanced musculature, which may be the reason (besides overuse, and stubbornly not taking extra rest days when needed) for some of my biomechanical problems in the past.

The hack squat.
 About five years ago, my friend Jay Yanovich had me on a very simple strength-training plan.  The plan consisted of little more than a 20-minute warm-up on the elliptical trainer, followed by three sets of 15 hack squats, performed in a very slow and deliberate manner, with very light weight resistance. "If you do them right," Jay said, "your quads will quiver near the end of each set." Each set of hack squats was interspersed with a set of 10 assisted squats at the side of the hack squat rack. After the squats I would use a "stretch machine" to work on my flexibility. After the initial shock of (over-)firing large muscles wore off during road runs, I could sense some surprising power in my legs, especially at the latter end of short races.
Researchers found a strength training program, added to endurance running, improved run performance in recreationally fit women when compared with run-only training. This week I'm looking at a series of exercises which can be done either at the local gym with the lower extremity machines or dumbbells, or at home with a set of dumbbells.
Muscle endurance, without bulk, is the balance runners need to find when approaching a strength training program. To increase muscle endurance without hypertrophy, the exercises should involve 12-to-15 repetitions for two to three sets, and have about a minute of rest between sets.  If weight is added, make certain it is no more than half of what could be lifted for one repetition.
Most of the exercises below can be done with or without a weight and (except for the first) focus on one leg at a time. If a movement aggravates or causes pain, avoid doing it or ask a strength trainer whether an alternative exercise exists.

LEG RAISES: Hang with the arms from a horizontal (chin-up) bar. Slowly lift both feet (keeping the legs straight) simultaneously toward the ceiling until the legs are parallel to the floor. Slowly lower the legs back to the starting position and repeat. Try to not swing the legs as you transition from one repeat to the next.

CALF RAISE: Stand with the ball of one foot on a raised surface such as a stair with the sole of the foot parallel to the floor. Slowly raise onto the toes, then slowly back to the starting position. Do not lef the heel drop below the level of the forefoot. This exercise can also be performed using dumbbells.

SEATED CALF RAISE: Sit on a bench with your feet flat on the floor. Place a dumbbell on your knee, balanced with your hand. Extend your foot so that your heel is off the floor and your foot is on its toes. Slowly lower your heel back onto the floor. Repeat this exercise with the other foot.

LUNGES: Start the exercise standing upright. You may use dumbbells or a barbell for extra weight. While keeping the back straight, lift one leg and lunge forward as if taking a large step. Bend the knee until the quadriceps muscles are parallel to the floor. Keep the quadriceps and lower leg at a right angle to minimize stress on the knee. Return to the upright position and repeat the exercise with the other leg.

STEP-UPS: Facing a stable chair, box or step 12-to-18 inches high with hands on hips, step up onto the raised surface one foot at a time so your are standing on top of it. You may add resistance by holding dumbbells in each hand. Step down backward, one foot at a time, to the starting position. Repeat the exercise starting with the opposite foot.

Remember while doing any strength training to breathe throughout the exercises; exhale on the movement and inhale on the return. Also make certain to maintain a neutral position (back/hips) throughout the exercise, use a weight which can be controlled throughout the entire exercise movement and do not lock your joints (knees, in the case of lower extremities) at any time during the exercise; use the almost complete, but not total, range of motion.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Want To Run Strong? You Need (To Be) A Dumbbell (Or Two)

I wrote in an earlier posting about my first trip to an area which for many runners is “the dark side;” the weight room. The weight room can be a scary place, especially if you’re a ‘typical’ recreational runner. But the only thing which scares me more than a weight room is asking for advice and counsel from a fitness trainer, especially one who rarely works with runners. My marathoner, Deena, works as a massage therapist for a local fitness center. Many were the evening track workouts where she would show up stiff and sore: ‘Coach, the trainer kicked my butt today in the gym; he had me doing…’ She was one of the fittest persons working for the gym, so the management would have her be the “guinea pig” when a new trainer came on board. A fitness trainer who doesn’t understand that running is more than ‘cardio” or warm-up for their training regimen can have runners doing all sorts of exercises which can make them feel worse than the worst track interval workout or over-distance run through which they’ve ever suffered.

My friend Jay Yanovich is a physiology guy and a former ultra-runner.  He served as my strength coach during some of my best years of running in my early 40s.  He limited my unstructured routine to a few short resistance exercises; after the initial shock wore off on the roads, the routine put some surprising power into my legs. Regrettably, once I got into triathlon (especially swimming) I dropped everything having to do with weights.

As I mentioned the other week, it's time to get back to where I once belonged.

Kelly, Burnett, and Newton (2008) investigated whether a strength training program, added to endurance running, would improve 3-km run times in a group of recreationally fit women when compared with run-only training. The strength-trained group was found to improve their 3K run time, while not significantly, compared to the group which only ran. Not surprisingly, the lifters also were stronger when lower body strength was tested (parallel squat and hamstring curl), and stronger in the upper body, as measured by bench press data. But did they become bulky, which is often a “reason” women give for not weight training? Not only did the researchers find no difference in VO2max or running economy in the lifting/running group, but there were no changes in the body composition. Women are less likely to get bulky (if lifting for muscle endurance) because of their hormone make-up.

Michael Leveritt, author of the upper body strength training section in “Run Strong” (Human Kinetics, 2005) describes the varied outcomes of strength training – muscle strength, muscle power, muscle hypertrophy, and muscular endurance – and recommends that to increase muscle endurance without the hypertrophy (getting “bulky”), the exercises should involve 12-to-15 repetitions for two to three sets, about a minute of rest between sets, with a weight at about half of what could be lifted for one repetition. Leveritt’s sample upper body program can be performed in about 30 minutes and focus on the back, chest and shoulder muscle groups, with some assistance from the biceps and triceps. The movements are running-specific, done with alternating movements of the limbs and mostly in an upright position. The routine includes:

Lat Pulldown.jpgLat Pulldown - place hands on bar in a grip wider than shoulder width. With knees under the pad, bend the elbows and pull the arms out and down until the upper arms are parallel to the floor. Extend arms back to starting position.

Alternating Dumbbell Bench Press.jpgAlternate Dumbbell Chest Press - lie flat on your back on a bench. Dumbbell in each hand, one arm extended straight up from the shoulder, the other arm bent at the elbow to 90 degrees. Bend the elbow to lower the dumbbell down until that elbow is bent 90 degrees. At the same time, contract the chest and straighten the other arm so that it extends straight up from the shoulder.

Seated Row.jpgCable Seated Row - from a seated position, with the hips and knees slightly flexed, grasp the pulley handles with both hands. Bring the handles toward the trunk while squeezing the shoulder blades together and down. Keep arms close to the body during the movement. Return the pulley handles back to the starting position.

Alternating Dumbbell Press.jpgAlternate Shoulder Press - from a standing position, begin this exercise with one arm extended straight up from the shoulders and the other arm with the elbow bent at 90 degrees. Bring the dumbbell in the hand of the straight arm downward until the elbow is bent 90 degrees. At the same time straighten the other arm so that it extends straight up from the shoulders. Maintain tension in the trunk to stabilize the body throughout the exercise.

Lat Deltoid Raise.jpgDumbbell Side Delt Abduction - from a standing position, lean forward slightly while holding a dumbbell in each hand, with hands extended straight downward from the shoulders and elbows slightly bent. Bring the arms outwrd and upward with elbows only slightly bent until the arms are outstretched and parallel to the floor. Return hands to the starting position.

Dumbbell Row.jpgDumbbell One Arm Lat Row - place the knee on a bench with the shin along the length of the bench. Bend forward at the hip so that the spine is almost parallel with the bench. Hold a dumbbell in the opposite hand with the arm extended straight downward from the shoulder. Raise the dumbbell while bending the elbow until the upper arm is parallel with the floor, keeping the arm close to the body. Lower the dumbbell to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.

There are several other exercises which can be used for strength training, depending on the individual runner’s strengths, weaknesses and imbalances. Remember that the goal is to increase the muscle strength – and running performance – with as little increase in muscle size as possible.
Next post will outline some lower body exercises which can be incorporated as part of a strength training program.

Friday, September 7, 2012

Going Minimal, Going Painless

A reader of NOLA Running took me to task after last Tuesday’s article about replacing running shoes at the 500-mile point.  He said: ‘…great advice if you happen to be one of the…shoe companies… I run 2,000-plus miles a year and my shoes work just fine for 2,000 to 3,000 miles. If my toes don't come thru the top of the shoe, I try to get more mileage out them. And, I don't have "musculoskeletal trouble" or any other overuse injuries. 
I complimented the reader on being blessed with biomechanical efficiencies and the option of running the overwhelming majority of his training miles on trails, two factors I certainly did not possess early in my running life.  We then got to discussing the merits and drawbacks of minimalist or “barefoot” running.  Minimalists argue that a thick mid-sole in the shoe is not necessary.  Instead, the shoe should be little more than a shell for the upper portion of the shoe, the outsole underneath the bottom of the foot and (depending on the running surface) a plate to protect the toes from rocks.  
When asked the "do I go minimalist" question, many coaches (myself included) often advise to use the lightest or most minimal shoe as can be tolerated. The hardest part of “going minimalist” may include the definition of “minimalist” in the running shoe world.  For example, the K-Swiss K-Ona shoe I used to run IM 70.3 NOLA a couple of years back is classified as "minimalist," probably based on the light weight.  It doesn't necessarily have a zero-degree heel like some of the racing flats I used for 5K/10K on the roads.
But why go minimalist or barefoot?  Several of my friends in the local running community have started within the last year or two to run in Vibram FiveFingers; a few were former members of my training group and resistant to any gait adjustment recommendation during track workouts. Naturally the "barefoot" shoe enforced (at a somewhat higher cost) what I (and the previous coach) had been trying to encourage for about five years...quicker turnover, shorter stride...which usually leads to a mid/forefoot strike.  Even though I like the occasional use/wear of Vibrams or Fila SkeleToes to strengthen the feet, or at least cover them, “toe shoes” and minimalist shoes are not recommended for folks (especially like this coach) who suffer from plantar fasciitis or other chronic overuse injuries.
I’ve suffered from plantar fasciitis for a long period of time.  It’s easy to tell someone to rest, walk in shoes which provide support and comfort, stretch, massage and take non-steroidal anti-inflammatories as needed…but as a coach it’s hard to take ones’ own recommendation. Because of that, I’m always on the lookout for exercises and treatments which will decrease the discomfort of plantar fasciitis, and physical therapist Phil Wharton’s video podcast on the Running Times magazine site showed up on my iTunes just in the nick of time.
Is it me or does Wharton look like Jim Carrey from the movie “Dumb and Dumber?”  What isn’t dumb is Wharton’s advice and the release technique shown in the video ( ).  I could feel the release in the front of my foot as I performed the technique while sitting on my living room couch.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

What is "Fit?"

“So are you planning to do more cardio today?  What race are you training for?”
Last Friday I had to take care of some long-overdue business with my “gym guy,” Ed.  We don’t have the opportunity to talk as much as I would like.  Most of our conversations are thirty seconds at most:  I’m trying to fit a workout between work and some other crazy activity; he’s maintaining a treadmill I have yet to break. 
Ed had recently returned from a rafting excursion in Peru.  The concept of him doing “outdoorsy” stuff should not have surprised me; his brother Erik climbed Mount Everest.  Yep, that Weihenmayer.  A smart guy would have matched the poster-sized Time magazine cover to the last name on the business card.  I still would not consider Ed a raft person.  Ed looks more like a “portage the raft” person; his build is of a guy I want on my side when moving a couch on Saturday morning.  Ed and I come from different world-views:  He calls running “cardio.”  I call his Cybex machines, barbells and benches “cross training.”
I mumbled something in passing about possibly working some of the small muscle groups.  Of course, to every weight-training focused person even the large muscle groups of a distance runner could be defined as “small.”  I felt no ill effect after a half-hour of pushing a few dumbbells and pulling a few pulleys.  At least not until two days after the fact, when my back tightened up during the Sunday morning trot like it was spring-wound.
So perhaps I’m not as fit as I thought I was.  I guess it all depends (wait for it…) on your own personal definition of “fitness.”
What is “fitness?”  Is there a particular standard, or is it a nebulous feel-good “I might not be able to bench press 200 pounds, but I can run six miles” thing?
We do CrossFit, yoga, swimming, spinning, running, or any physical activity to improve our health, develop or advance our “fitness,” and hopefully advance our ability to perform the activity we choose to enjoy.  We might be a poor swimmer but a great cyclist.  We runners work a great deal on our aerobic capacity; the ability to move in some fashion for as long as possible, and to some extent for a specific competition or sport-related goal.  But, as the muscles of my upper back and neck have reminded me, even up to yesterday evening, we need to focus as much on functional movement, stability and mobility, lest we become “one-dimensionally” fit.  Not that I want my friends to call on me when it’s time to move into a new apartment, but I don’t want to need a dolly to carry a 12-pack, either.
I often refer to Timothy Noakes’ “Lore of Running,” because of the sheer volume of information on running physiology and psychology.  But if you prefer a condensed version, I would recommend “Run Strong,” edited by Kevin Beck.  In 200-plus pages, Beck distills the advice and counsel of coaches like Greg McMillan, Pete Pfitzinger and Joe Rubio, trainers like Christine Chorak, and athletes like Gwyn and Mark Coogan, to the elements a self-coached runner needs to know in order to, well... 
Chapters 5, 6, and 7 of “Run Strong” focus specifically on those areas which are commonly overlooked by many recreational runners; upper body strength, lower body strength, and body alignment.  I’ll be pulling my copy off my personal library shelf, and perhaps I’ll have a little heart-to-heart chat with Ed in the next few days…as soon as my back muscles loosen.